Mementos fill former cellblock
Handcuffs from about 1900, an early hand-held metal detector from the 1960s, and photos from throughout the 109-year life of the old Allegheny County Jail are among items on display inside preserved cells at a jail museum that opened Tuesday.
“This is an opportunity for us to ensure that the jail’s history is long-standing and available for the citizens of Allegheny County for years to come,” said Juvenile Court Director James Rieland, whose office helped jail officials, historic preservation leaders and others open the museum.
The facility is housed in wood and metal cellblocks preserved when the old jail was converted in 2000 into the county’s new family court building. It will be open only for prearranged tours for now, but organizers hope to make it available to the public full-time in the future.
During an open house yesterday, visitors filed into closet-size brick cells, gripped antique iron bars and imagined what it was like to spend time in the Downtown lockup that opened in 1886.
Ed Urban, a deputy warden at the current jail who worked in the old facility beginning in 1971, provided many of the artifacts on display. He said that when old machinery, documents or photos were about to discarded, he put them aside to be preserved.
“I’m a collector,” Urban said.
He told guests about famous inmates who spent time at the jail, including the Biddle brothers, who escaped from the jail in 1902 with the help of a love-struck warden’s wife, and anarchist Alexander Berkman, who tried to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892.
Photo displays bring alive unique features famed architect H.H. Richardson built into the jail, including the arched “bridge of sighs” over Ross Street that connects the jail with the Allegheny County Courthouse. The stone bridge earned its nickname from the prisoners’ moans of despair as they were led to sentencing dates.
The museum, built with a $150,000 grant from the Drue Heinz Foundation, also includes displays about the county’s juvenile court system.
Rieland said his office is trying to bolster public knowledge about an agency that was for many years shrouded by secrecy laws.
Visits to the museum can be arranged by calling 412-471-5808.